By Karen Hanna
As ideas for the virtual alternative to NPE evolve, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) remains committed to serving its members, one official said Jan. 6. Meanwhile, companies that had planned to attend the triennial trade show, originally set for May 17-21, expressed disappointment, as well as support for the association and acceptance of its decision, in light of the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Brendan Thomas, VP of marketing and communications for PLASTICS, said he’s looking forward to a return to normal life. Virtual trade shows and meet-and-greets that have drawn record numbers over the past year have buoyed the association, which in years past has experienced challenges when attendance at NPE has flagged.
“I think we’re on firm financial footing to continue to serve the entire industry,” Thomas said.
The association anticipated releasing more details of a virtual alternative within a relatively short time, he said. While some members have pinned their hopes on rescheduling NPE, the United States’ largest showcase for the industry, Thomas explained that won’t be possible in the near term.
“With regards to NPE, it’s so immense and popular that it’s difficult to move to a relatively close date,” he said.
Conditions force decision
Thomas said PLASTICS took potential participants’ safety in consideration when it made its decision to pull the plug on the live event, originally planned for the 7-million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. The facility currently is serving as a site for virus vaccinations and testing.
“Our decision to cancel the show in May was entirely based on the best evidence from medical and legal experts and the input we received from members, exhibitors and our concern for them, our staff and attendees,” he said.
Prior to PLASTICS’ announcement on Jan. 5, at least two member companies had lobbied the association to cancel NPE. Conrad Bessemer, Novatec’s CEO and managing partner and executive chairman and cofounder of MachineSense, aired his concerns publicly, releasing a strongly worded email he had sent to PLASTICS.
In it, he wrote, “We see no way that this show can possibly be a successful event and may in fact contribute to viral infection and/or death even in a deeply contracted state.”
Martin Baumann, VP/GM of Maag Americas, said his company also had recommended canceling NPE. “Maag Group wrote a letter to PLASTICS asking that the show be canceled. From our perspective, it could not have been done safely, nor would there have been enough visitors to make it worthwhile,” he said.
Health concerns dominate
Health was top of mind for officials at other companies, too.
“Everybody's worried they’re going to get COVID, and the show would just not be well-attended,” said Bob Jackson, owner of Jackson Machinery.
Corey Gast, marketing manager for Graham Engineering, expressed both disappointment and relief that the show was cancelled.
When it comes to sales, companies miss the human touch, said Gast, but “there’s a slight sense of relief just because, well, for the past few months, we just had no idea what was going on.”
Prior to the cancellation, Davis-Standard CEO Jim Murphy said his company had worries, too.
“The trade association had a tough decision to make, but we think they made the right one. It was the right decision for the circumstances,” Murphy said.
Almost precisely a year since reports of a cluster of pneumonia cases in China first hit the news, no one betrayed any surprise at the decision.
Marko Koorneef, the president of Boy Machines Inc., summed up his response with one word: “Understandable.”
In a year that’s demanded resilience, he chose to look ahead.
Koorneef’s company had planned to exhibit two new pieces of equipment.
“I just had one of my sales guys come up, and he said, “Hey, that machine that you reserved for the show?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘Can I sell it?’ ” Koorneef was undaunted. “I said, ‘Go for it.’ ”
Koorneef and other insiders noted that the pandemic has placed the same sorts of restraints on all companies, so the loss of NPE is a shared challenge.
Len Hampton, national sales manager for Sodick, said his company has been insulated by the popularity of its presses among medical-parts molders.
“It’s a shame it’s not going to go off, but I think everybody understands,” he said.
“I don't see how it would really affect our company positively, negatively, or just you know, we rise and, to a degree, we rise and fall together,” he said.
He expressed concern for how the NPE cancellation would affect PLASTICS.
“I don’t want to say worried ’cause worried is not the right word, but I think that we all have to recognize that the Plastics Industry Association is, if they get hurt, and this is a major source of their revenue, then that hurts our whole industry.”
Eric Adair, co-founder and marketing manager of US Extruders, said the company has lost an opportunity to build its customer base. But, he said, “We understand and agree with PLASTICS’ decision to cancel the in-person component of NPE.”
A big blow
In Ontario, where Amsler is based, CEO Bruce Coxhead said a decision to cancel NPE might not have made sense earlier. But now, the numbers of patients with COVID-19 are again straining hospital resources.
“Coming out of Christmas in Canada, at least in Ontario, our numbers have skyrocketed on the COVID side. So, we’re on a total lockdown in Ontario right now. So, you can’t get your hair cut, can’t go to a restaurant, and we did this before to control the numbers,” he said.
While he supported the decision, Coxhead said it casts a pall over his company’s rollout of a new controls platform, as well as its announcement of its recent acquisition of Benpac, a Swiss holding conglomerate of packaging technology companies.
In all, Amsler had five booths planned.
“It’s a major advertising blow, shall we say, that we can’t capitalize on,” he said.
Instead, the company might be forced to find ways to play host to COVID-safe open houses, along with virtual demonstrations over the internet.
“But again, that all depends — can we travel? You know that’s the next thing,” he said.
“We’re all in the same boat,” he said, echoing a line used by others.
Reading the writing on the wall
Because of uncertainty surrounding NPE, a number of companies had planned only bare-bones participation prior to the show’s cancellation.
Graham Engineering, for example, had not planned to show machinery, Gast said.
Leistritz also was scaling back.
“I said if it goes ahead, at most, they’ll get 10,000 [attendees]. So, we were going to do it on a pared-down, significantly pared-down event, you know? So, we would have only sent a handful of people down and a minimal amount of equipment, and we would have been there to again to support the plastics industry,” Martin said.
PLASTICS’ decision pre-empted any further deliberation by Tederic, which, after first reserving two booths, had downsized to one and was anticipating pulling out anyway.
The legal liability in the event of an outbreak would be a “nightmare,” said Richard Konnen, president of Tederic North American Machinery.
He and others noted the potential vulnerability of their colleagues and competitors to COVID-19.
“Most of the sales guys in the plastics industry are over 55, so it’s already not a good environment health-wise,” Konnen said.
More than 56,000 people attended the last NPE, in 2018. There will be none this year.
It leaves a hole, company officials said. But they’re prepared to make the best of virtual arrangements.
“Conair has already begun developing tools that will allow us to meet customers virtually beginning on May 17 and introduce them to the exciting new product and technology developments we have been working on,” said Sam Rajkovich, VP of sales and marketing at the Conair Group.
Like other officials, Henry Zhang, director of marketing and market intelligence for Husky, noted his company has been on the front lines, building machines that can produce parts critical to the fight against COVID-19.
In the past year, Husky and other companies have beefed up their virtual communications.
“We have expanded our technology solutions to provide customers with remote interactive service and support and are also conducting virtual meetings to ensure we continue to engage with our customers whenever possible,” Zhang said. “Other initiatives include the upcoming launch of our Experience Husky virtual platform, live stream demonstrations of our systems and webinars that deliver educational content on various topics.”
Such systems and strategies will continue to buttress companies as vaccines are gradually rolled out.
“These are challenging times, and we believe that in every challenge lies an opportunity to embrace, adapt and improve,” he said.
Senior reporter Bruce Geiselman contributed to this report.